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Scientists suffer human-rights abuses

October 25, 2006 By Heidi Ledford This article courtesy of Nature News.

Around the world, researchers are being harassed, imprisoned and murdered.

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Six medical workers are on trial in Libya, facing the death penalty for deliberately infecting hundreds of children with HIV, despite the fact that international experts say there is no evidence of their guilt (see ' A shocking lack of evidence').

And around the world, dozens of other scientists and physicians await verdicts of their own, after being imprisoned for dissenting with their government, fired for publishing unwelcome studies, or harassed for carrying out unwanted research.

The three profiles below give a taste of what some researchers face. They do not include the many who have been arrested in countries such as China, Ethiopia, Turkey, and Burma to name a few for speaking against their government.

Nor do they include tragic cases such as that of anthropologist Nikolai Girenko, who was studying racism in Russia when he was shot and killed in St Petersburg in 2004; Myrna Mack, a Guatemalan anthropologist who was stabbed to death in Guatemala City in 1990 after publishing a report documenting the murder of civilians by the military during the country's 36-year guerrilla war; or the many Iraqi academics who have been assassinated over the past three years (see ' Scientists become targets in Iraq').

It's pretty much living in a constant state of panic.
Fredy Peccerelli,
Guatamalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation
Carol Corillon, director of the US National Academy of Sciences Human Rights Committee in Washington DC, says that her office is working on about 30 human rights cases involving scientists, engineers, or health professionals, and monitoring approximately 140 more.

"It's really becoming almost a daily occurrence that we get requests for help," says Zafra Lerman, a professor of science and public policy at Columbia College, Chicago, and chair of the American Chemical Society's Scientific Freedom and Human Rights Subcommittee. "We thought that when the Soviet Union fell, human rights committees would go out of business. It turns out that the opposite has happened."

Guatemala: Fredy Peccerelli

On 26 August 2005, two men walked up to Jeannette Peccerelli's car while she was stopped at a traffic light in Guatemala City. They grabbed her by her hair, pressed a gun to her head, and announced that they were watching her then husband, Fredy, "very closely". They then released her and left.

Fredy Peccerelli works for the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation a non-profit body that identifies bodies found in mass graves across Guatemala. The graves are a legacy of Guatemala's 36-year guerrilla war, in which an estimated 200,000 people were killed. Fredy Peccerelli's work helps to provide evidence used to convict those responsible for massacres.

The assault on Jeannette Peccerelli is one episode in a four-year string of threats to Fredy Peccerelli and members of his family. One recent letter, says Fredy Peccerelli, threatened to kidnap, rape, and kill his sister if he didn't stop his work. "It's pretty much living in a constant state of panic," he told Nature. "It's horrible."

To help Fredy Peccerelli: visit for more information on the case and where to send letters of appeal.

Vietnam: Nguyen Dan Que

Nguyen Dan Que was first arrested in 1978 while working as doctor at the Cho-Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. He complained about the government's health care policies, and spent ten years in prison for it. After his release, Nguyen founded a human rights organization, issued a manifesto and received eight more years in jail.

Now, after three arrests and 20 years in prison, Nguyen is officially free. Except that there are six guards stationed outside his house, his medical licence has been revoked, his Internet access is blocked, his telephone has been cut off, his mail is monitored and some visitors to his home have been threatened with losing their jobs, says Nguyen's brother Quan Quoc, a doctor living in Virginia. "There's no indication of when this will end," says Quan Quoc.

To help Nguyen Dan Que: send letters of appeal to:

His Excellency Nguyen Tan Dung Prime Minister Office of the Prime Minister Hoang Hoa Tham, Ha Noi Socialist Republic of Viet Nam Fax: 011 844 823 4137 Salutation: Dear Prime Minister

Russia: Igor Sutyagin (pictured, top)

Russian federal officers came for Igor Sutyagin on 27 October 1999. A researcher for the Institute of USA and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Sutyagin's speciality was military policy and nuclear weapons.

The Russian Federal Security Service arrested Sutyagin and charged him with treason and espionage, alleging that he provided classified information to a UK consulting firm. Sutyagin protested that all of the data he provided could be found in the public domain.

Sutyagin's trial started, stopped, and changed judges and juries repeatedly for over four years until he was convicted in April 2004 and sentenced to 15 years in prison, which he is now serving.

Sutyagin's friend Pavel Podvig, a military-policy researcher at Stanford University in California, says the trial never established that Sutyagin had accessed classified information. "The jury was never asked if the prosecutor had proved that the information was secret," says Podvig. "The questions were all very nonspecific."

To help Igor Sutyagin: visit to add your signature to a letter of support or to contact Sutyagin's family.

Visit our newsblog to read and post comments about this story.


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